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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Hudak's Tragic Mental Health Irony

I really think Hudak's heart is in the right place, but it's his head that needs to step up a bit here.  

I'm hoping he's familiar with the federal workplace standards for mental health; a great initiative supported by the federal Conservatives, I might add.  The reason this is such an important undertaking at this point in time is that mental health is a growing cause for disability claims, absenteeism and lost productivity

If you want to talk about cost savings - mental health-related concerns cost the Canadian economy some $50 billion annually.  That's a lot.

The elephant in the room around mental health, though, is that it doesn't work the way we think it does.

For one, conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are genetic, which means they aren't actually illnesses, but inherited traits, like pigmentation or height.  You can be pale and prone to sunburn or too tall to fit in small cars - they're not considered illnesses, but conditions to be accommodated.  They're also manifested physically and therefore clearly discernible by the general public.  

Life can be harder for left-handed people, but society has become far more accommodating.  When society isn't understanding or accommodating, however, we tend to react to behaviour rather than explore the causes beneath that behaviour.  ADHD kids and adults have greater trouble landing and retaining jobs; some autistic folk will have amazing, never-harnessed skills because of communications challenges that some teachers and employers feel no need to come half-way on.

For people like this, accrued mental illness becomes much more likely.  Common examples of these are forms of anxiety and depression, which are increasingly related with family and work stress.  With the right supports and accommodations, workplaces don't need to be illness-inducing; families can have the supports they need to cope with mental illnesses at home.

You don't need to have extra-normal cognitive function to accrue a mental illness, though, any more than you need to be an albino to get a skin burn.  Every day, people are developing accumulated mental injuries at work in the same way repetitive psychical stresses-related ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome develop.

It makes no sense to tell someone with carpal tunnel to suck it up and exacerbate their injury more; it really makes no sense to pressure mentally injured people to push themselves to the breaking point.  That's in no small part why we've got a mental health crisis in the first place.

Here's where the irony part comes in.

By focusing on economic competitiveness, Hudak is envisioning more sales-focused workers, more laissez-faire employers and more carrot-and-stick discipline for workplace behaviour.  These sorts of conditions have helped foster the rise in occupational mental illness claims we're witnessing.

Are these people faking it?  Are they slacking off, not working hard enough, whatever?  Do they need to get tough to get ahead?  Where does Hudak draw the line between workplace behaviour and mental health? 

There is precedence for this sort of conundrum; unions, oddly enough, arose in response to poor workplace conditions related to physical well-being.  It was due to union engagement that workplace safety standards and things like reasonable work hours and washroom breaks were implemented.  It's because of unions that these things continue to this day.

While there are some smart employers taking behavioural economics to heart and properly designing work, workplaces and management techniques to foster greater productivity and innovation from mentally health (and supported) employees, this is far from the norm.  

Most employers still think the tough-boss model works best.  They also oppose unions who "coddle" employers and reduce a company's ability to cull less-able staff or find efficiencies by getting more for less.  

But this is what unions do.  They're as behind the times on mental fitness as anyone, but they're still best positioned to champion the causes of their members in much the same way a political caucus does.
So here's Hudak's conundrum; it's great that he wants to afford more mental health support for those who need it, but by cutting into the existing, proactive support structures, he's guaranteeing worse mental health outcomes and an increased cost.  

You can't treat mental health supports like a Jenga game, but that's what Hudak is doing.

I applaud his commitment; it's absolutely the right priority for the times.  But his plan not only won't work, it'll make the situation worse.

If not, I know someone else who could be.


  1. In your third last sentence, there is a typo.

    "his plan not only won't work, it'll make the situation work."

    I'm certain you meant... "worse".

    1. I did - thanks for pointing that out!

      It's amazing how we can make things better when we work together, isn't it? ;o)

    2. Definitely. And to your blog post... It is crucial for Ontario to address the Mental Health issues that effect so many aspects of our society. It effects the way we interact with each other - at work - at play -at home - and within our commerce.

      Setting aside others for their personality differences is becoming more and more common and more and more accepted. This is wrong and we need to find ways to understand these more difficult interactions. Not to pander or to patronize, but rather to simply respect the dignity of every human being in relatively usual and non-emergency related circumstances and/or situations.

  2. Wise words, Anon! Society's gotten so complex and interwoven that we soon won't have any forward except by overcoming this barrier of stigma/ignorance/misunderstanding. It won't happen easily, though.